It was by luck that James Dean was available for Nicholas Ray's new picture. He had been under contract to start work on George Stevens' Giant
(1956), but when Elizabeth Taylor's pregnancy delayed the start of shooting, Dean had plenty of time to make Rebel Without a Cause
Before the camera rolled, Nicholas Ray went to concerted efforts to get to know his star. Ray visited Dean's New York stomping grounds to get a feel for his life. Ray said, "I wanted to find out all about this guy. I ran around with him, and met his friends, got drunk a couple of times and we were pretty close by the time we were ready to go to work. Whatever else Jimmy was, he was a searcher, ever on the lookout for some trick or other he could store up and use. I could see him soaking them up and I knew he had to play that part, because he could do it like no one else I knew."
Even though she was under contract to Warner Bros., Natalie Wood was not at the top of the list of choices to play Judy. Nicholas Ray had originally discounted her because of a credibility issue; she had been a famous child actress (Miracle on 34th Street
, 1947). Ray tested various actresses from Debbie Reynolds to Jayne Mansfield, but he couldn't find his Judy.
Nicholas Ray finally cast Natalie Wood after he picked her and Dennis Hopper up from a Van Nuys police station after an automobile accident. While she was being held, one police officer called her a juvenile delinquent, which prompted Wood to angrily ask Ray, "Now do I get the part?"
James Dean, Natalie Wood, Nick Adams, and Sal Mineo were an inseparable foursome while filming Rebel Without a Cause
Realizing the actor's power to touch youthful audiences, director Nicholas Ray gave James Dean free reign to improvise his scenes.
Ann Doran, who played Dean's mother in Rebel Without A Cause
said, "Jimmy did most of the directing. He gave us our lines; he dominated the entire thing." Dean and Ray's working relationship was equally bizarre. Ray often rehearsed with Dean at his Chateau Marmont bungalow, and felt the energy between them there was so powerful that he actually recreated his own living room on the set to inspire Dean.
Ann Doran also revealed that "Jimmy was a strange boy. On the first day, Jim Backus couldn't believe it. We were watching Jimmy doing his scene and someone had said, 'Quiet, we're going to shoot now.' And they got up speed and were ready for action. Jimmy went down on the floor in the fetal position for the longest time. It seemed like half a can of film...and Nick said, 'Action.' Jimmy stood up and went into the scene...(Jim and I) had never seen this method of doing things. Nick seemed to be mesmerized by Jimmy."
For the scene in which Jimmy batters a desk, the actor prepared for it by getting drunk in his trailer. When he emerged, he performed the shot in one take, though it was said he broke two bones in his hand as a result.
When the crew began night shooting at the Griffith Park Planetarium in Hollywood, downtown Los Angeles residents saw the bright production lights in the hills and flooded switchboards with reports of raging forest fires.
Based on the strong sneak preview response to Rebel Without a Cause
, Warner Bros. proposed a long-term contract for James Dean. But on September 30, 1955, Dean died in a high speed automobile accident near Paso Robles, California. He was 24 years old.
by Felicia Feaster, Scott McGee and Jeff Stafford